Travelling teaches us more about the world, life and ourselves than any education ever could. A gap year can give you enough knowledge about global culture, traditions and geography to secure your place on your local quiz team for eternity.
But the subtle realisations or moments of epiphany that we all experience when abroad are what can have the most powerful effect upon us. So here are the seven most important realisations you’ve probably had and that may have stuck with you long after your travels.
1. A smile is worth a thousand words
From the second you touch down you’ll realise you made a serious error by skipping through the “Dummies Guide to Vietnamese” (or whichever language you needed to grasp) to reach the rude words section. There is literally no circumstance in which knowing the Vietnamese for the insult May an long dai cham mui (you eat pubic hair with salt dip) is ever going to be useful.
But, after a few false starts (nope, loudly speaking in English doesn’t help either), the moment of epiphany is when you crack out that first slightly apologetic and idiotic grin. At the market; on the bus; asking for directions; all interactions suddenly become magically less traumatic thanks to your smile, and everyone’s friendliness and usefulness increases by roughly 200%.
2. But learning some does help
The only problem with substituting words for a foolish grin is that, while people take pity on the poor confused tourist, you run the risk of being severely ripped off. A trip to buy food will make you see how having some grasp of the local language can help you avoid being conned out of the equivalent of a tenner for a bunch of bananas.
What’s most wonderful about this epiphany is seeing that it doesn’t have to be a ballache to learn a language as you travel. For me, it was well worth it. A bit of language study brought bizarre advice (I now know exactly where to buy a discounted stretch limo in Chile) as well as the distinct advantage of being able to politely decline a massage, photo opportunity with a llama or whatever other shit the locals have tried to flog me.
3. Rising at dawn is actually awesome
Ironically, the thought of waking with the sun is one that fills most of us with utter dread in ‘real life’ or ‘that time when you had a job and responsibilities’. Setting an alarm for 5am is about as much fun as trimming your toenails with a chainsaw.
Travel changes this. One day, you’re forced to break the habit of a lifetime and lo and behold: it’s beautiful. For me, waking at dawn to watch a watery sunrise over the Bolivian salt flats was what had me hooked. I’m now a convert. Sure, I don’t actively make a point of rising at dawn on a regular basis, but the shocking realisation was that I might actually want to every once in a while.
4. Travel friendships are instantaneous and enduring
One of the greatest takeaways of travelling the globe is the huge increase in Facebook friends that you experience. Some of these are a result of momentary, alcohol-fuelled friendships following a mere day spent together. Others you know are friendships for life, even if you don't see one another for years.
Whatever happens, you’ll always have the shared experience of being side-by-side in your hammocks as your riverboat glided though the Amazon or holding each other’s hair back as you succumbed to street food-induced vomiting. Travelling makes you value friendships differently; an epiphany that leaves you grateful for the people you meet even if your time together is limited.
5. Most of our worldly belongings are unnecessary
When you started travelling, chances are you filled your 70-litre rucksack with enough clothes and strange survival contraptions to cope with being stranded on a desert island and even looking good while you were there. But a short while in and half your belongings will have been gifted away and your backpack – and most importantly, your back itself – is a lot happier.
The longer you travel, the more you realise how little you need. Clothes are a waste of precious space; the whole point of travelling is to see how long you can go without washing your clothes before people start complaining. No, backpacking isn’t about looking like those beautified photos on Instagram. If you’re warm, dry and surrounded by interesting people – none of whom are complaining about your stench – then you’re sorted.
6. Reverse culture shock exists
This is the slowest dawning epiphany of them all and one that only hits just as you prepare to return home. No, apparently you can’t just yell at the bus driver when you want to get off – there’s a button for indicating which stop you want to use. Yes, if you swear loudly in English, people will be able to understand. Coming home sucks.
It’s only when you get back and your brain hurts with all the strange things that were once so normal that you realise how finishing travelling is the biggest comedown of your life.
7. It’s addictive
The final and most life-altering travel epiphany is discovering that maybe you don’t ever want to stop. You realise you’ve been beset by something akin to a drug addiction, but one that’s slightly more socially-acceptable and (probably) a lot more expensive.
If you’re anything like me, life BT (Before Travel) is no longer a viable place to return. I’ve been bitten pretty badly by the travel bug, and I’m not alone in trying to turn this addiction to seeing the world into a career. If you similarly feel that this is the only way to deal with your addiction, then good luck. Just find a nice way to break it to your mum that you probably won’t be coming home any time soon - perhaps the most obvious revelation of them all is that mums don’t take that information well.
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Steph Dyson writes about adventure travel and meaningful volunteering on her website, Worldly Adventurer. She left her job as an English teacher in the UK to travel the world in 2014. So far, she's made it to Bolivia and Peru. Follow her on Twitter @worldlyadventur